Monday, July 13, 2020

Story Rulez: Two Things Every Novel Needs to Do

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are a lot of rules in writing, but only two you really need to follow.

I'm a big fan of the story. If I had to chose between a great story and great writing, I'd take story every time, because without a great story, who cares about the writing? I've seen wonderfully written manuals, but that didn't make me want to curl up with them in front of a fire. 

I've gotten myself into some debates over which is more important to a new writer. Should they focus on improving their writing or their story?

Knowing the rules is important. Writing is a skill, and there's only so far you can go with raw talent. At some point, you'll need to know what you're doing. But I also think that no matter how good a writer you are, if you're not also a storyteller, you won't go that far either.

Most readers don't pick up a book because the author is technically skilled--they pick it up because it sounds like a good story.

Provided you have the technical skills (after all, horrible writing that a reader can't follow will kill even a great story), what does a great story have to do? Once you have those technical skills, what rules does a writer need to follow?

Just two.

1. Hook the reader
2. Entertain them until the novel is over 

That's it. Seriously. It sounds so easy, but this is probably the number-one reason most well-written books fail. It's why my early novels failed to get me an agent or sell to a publisher. It's probably why a lot of trunk novels are still trunk novels. They failed to do these two things.

Let's look a little closer at these rules.

Hook the Reader

You can find a find a ton of information online on how to hook readers. But basically, you hook a reader by offering them something that makes them curious enough to keep reading. You make them care. They want to know more, see what happens, spend more time with this character, see what develops in this world, explore this premise.

How you do that varies, and what works for one book and one writer might not work for another. For every "you must do (or do not) X" rule, someone will show you an example to that rule and use it as proof that the rule is wrong. In most cases, that example is an exception to the rule that succeeded in spite of, not because of, breaking that rule.

Here are three ways that consistently work to hook readers. How you use these in your novel is up to you, though.

1. Introduce an interesting character with a problem.

This applies to just about every novel out there, even if the opening scene is more about the general problem than the specific person. Somebody has a problem they need to solve. For example, in Anyone But You, the protagonist, Nina, has a problem from the first line. She wants to adopt a puppy, and she winds up with a depressed Basset Hound named Fred. And while this sounds like a minor problem, it's one that introduces Nina and her bigger problem to readers in a way that makes you instantly like her and want to know more.

No matter how it's conveyed to readers, a novel starts with a problem somebody is going to have to solve. The book follows that person (or people) and shows how they solve it. The reader cares about both the character(s) and the problem, so they keep on reading.

(Here's more on Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

2. Introduce a compelling situation.

Sometimes the situation is what hooks readers, be it an event, a crime, a disaster, etc. For example, Jurassic Park opens with a doctor getting an unexpected patient flown in by helicopter, and a wound that doesn't match the story of how the young man was injured. Readers aren't sure what's going on yet, but it's clear something is terribly wrong and people are lying. There's a problem at the InGen construction site and it's not normal.

Some topics are fascinating, and we don't care all that much about the characters at first. We want to see more about this cool idea. But as soon as the shine is off the apple, we want a story to go with that cool idea. The reader cares about the idea, but they also want to see how that idea develops into a story.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Hook Your Readers)

3. Introduce an intriguing character with a unique perspective.

You'll also hear "start with a great voice" and it's roughly the same thing. The person telling the story is so charismatic that you'll hang with them for a bit to see what they do. The reader cares about the character or storyteller and that draws them into the novel. For example, in The Book Thief, the narrator is Death, telling you you're going to die, and then tries to be cheerful about that. The story picks up after that, but readers are already intrigued by this narrator and why he's telling this tale.

Showing a view never seen before can be intriguing, and a unique perspective can be compelling to readers. It's unpredictable, and that can be a strong hook.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Develop Character Voices)

No matter how you hook your reader, the next rule is the really hard one.

Entertain Your Reader to the End of the Novel

This entire blog is devoted to doing that. There's no formula (though there is a reliable structure that works well), no one way, no plug and play outline. You just keep offering something the reader finds interesting and keep them wanting more. And again, how you do that is up to you.

There are some consistently helpful ways for this:

1. Give the characters goals worth striving for.

Stories aren't about people watching, but following a character as they struggle with a problem that needs to be solved. Create a carrot to encourage the reader to keep reading. Keep the protagonist striving to accomplish a goal, and let those goals lead them to the big conflict the novel is trying to resolve.

(Here's more on Oh, Woe Is Me: Strengthening Character Goals)

2. Give the story stakes that matter.

Readers need a reason to care about the characters and the story. Stakes provide that reason, and give readers (and characters) something to worry about in the novel. Failure has consequences. High stakes, low stakes, end of the world or quiet and reflective, as long as we want to see how it turns out, we'll keep reading.

(Here's more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

3. Give the story a character worth following.

Stories are about people. Even in hard sci fi where the science is at the core, it's the people who are driving that scientific exploration. That science has human repercussions that make us curious. (otherwise we'd just read a scientific paper on the subject).

Create intriguing characters. They don't have to be good or even likable if there's something about them that makes us want to know more. They just have to capture our attention and curiosity.

It comes down to making the reader care. If they care, they'll keep reading. If they don't, they'll stop. 

(Here's more on 10 Traits of a Great Protagonist)

If you focus on telling a great story, you'll stand a better chance at creating a great story, because you'll have something that makes readers care, and a reason to keep turning those pages.

Does your current novel follow the rules?

*Originally published December 2010. Last update July 2020.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post. I think you're right. No matter how well we write technically, if we don't hook the reader, agent, and publisher and tell an entertaining story, it won't work. As usual, you break it all down so clearly. Thanks.

  2. Janice: Love these recent posts about story and plotting. Very helpful, thank you. Can't wait to read more!

  3. This is great, Janice! What a great complement to my rules piece. And good advice too...

  4. Another useful post. Just what I need to improve my so-called novel, in progress (I hope). I bookmarked this one too >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. You may it sound oh so easy! I think the trouble is finding ways of making your own story interesting to other people. Tapping into the global issues. I guess that's why so many genres become formulaic.

    We're still trying to explore the same themes through the novel format over and over again but few novels can give us that sense of epiphany, that sense of resolved theme, that we crave. So we keep buying similar books in the similar craze until we just get sick of them!

  6. Storytelling is almost as hard as technical writing, at least for me. But yes, the story can keep a reader despite less than brilliant writing. I keep going back to The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, even though the writing itself is not the best, because the story is intriguing. (An 80 year old grandmother, bored with life, goes to the CIA and volunteers to be a spy.) Her line about why she went to the Pentagon still makes me chuckle. (paraphrased since I don't have it in front of me.)

    Agent: You don't volunteer to the CIA; they look for you.
    Mrs. Pollifax: Well, how are they supposed to find me in New Brunswick, New Jersey?

  7. Natalie: Most welcome! There's so much gray and overlapping areas, but everyone can name at least one book they read that was badly written, but they had to k now how it ended anyway. That shows the power of story.

    Stephanie: Thanks!

    Juliette: You gave me the idea, girl :) So thank you!

    Cold As Heaven: If you keep working, it'll improve.

    E. Arroyo: Thanks!

    Shannon: It sounds easy, but we all know it isn't. I think you nailed it. Finding a way to make our stories interesting to other people. Universal themes is a way to do that, and often work, but it can start to get old after a while.

    Jaleh: My mother loves Mrs.Pollifax. I haven't read those books yet but I want to (after deadline) It's such a delightful premise. I'm actually surprised no one has made a TV series out of it yet. Seems like a natural.

  8. A TV series of Mrs. Pollifax would be fantastic. Even a movie of the first book would be fun. Now I'm going to be contemplating actors and actresses for the parts. :D

  9. Wonderful advice and great for me to keep in mind as this little seed of an idea I have is starting to sprout...

  10. The fact is, if you succeed BOTH as a storyteller (art) and writer (craft) it's a win-win for everybody, despite recent examples of huge numbers of readers being hooked into a story that resonated with them, written by a rank amateur (you know what teen vampire romp I'm referring to). But I really think Twilight (oops--I spilled it!) is an outlier--an exception to the rule. If you're really serious about writing, you should be honing both your storytelling AND writing skills.

    No one ever said it was going to be easy!

  11. I realize this thread is *really* old, but I just wanted to drop a note that the story of Mrs. Pollifax WAS made into a movie, starring Angela Lansbury.

    1. Good to know, thanks! That would have made a fun series, actually.

  12. As always, excellent advice and information, thank you, Janice!